A crash course on the sackbut, ancestor of the modern trombone
Maximilien Brisson, a leading Canadian sackbut player, explains everything you need to know, and more
Most of us are familiar with the modern trombone, the brass instrument with an extendible slide that has become a fixture in jazz ensembles and symphony orchestras.
We're less familiar with the trombone's ancestor, the sackbut, even though the instrument is played to this day by specialists in Renaissance and baroque music. One such sackbut player is Maximilien Brisson, a graduate of l'Université de Montréal, McGill University and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland, and member of le Consort laurentien, a group specializing in chamber music from the 16th and 17th centuries.
"What I find appealing is that the repertoire we play — and the style of playing that's required in that repertoire — is very different from the modern trombone," Brisson told CBC Music recently. "[The sackbut] has a lot less core to the sound, it has more overtones, which is a bit more like a voice in a small room. It's a little bit airy in the sound."
Eager to know more, we asked Brisson for a crash course. Below, six things to know about the sackbut.
1. The word sackbut is derived from 2 French words
"The word sackbut comes from French — from the verbs saquer and bouter, which mean push and pull, which is literally what you do with the slide," Brisson explained.
In Italy, the instrument was known as the trombone; in Germany, the Posaune.
2. The sackbut was a prominent brass instrument for 300 years
The sackbut first appeared in the 15th century, and was a prominent brass instrument during the Renaissance, baroque and early classical periods. But by the 18th century, it fell out of use. "It was only still used in Austria and in some towns in Germany, but it went extinct everywhere else," explained Brisson. When it came back a century later, the instrument had evolved and became commonly known as the trombone. ("Germans have used the word Posaune from the start," he points out.)
Brisson says that compared to the trombone, which took over in the 19th century and is with us to this day, "the sackbut's bell is much smaller and the diameter of the tubing is quite a bit smaller."
3. The sackbut is not as loud as the trombone
While the sackbut is not as loud as the modern trombone, Brisson points out that its sound is especially effective when played in a resonant acoustic.
"They played those instruments in big churches. When you play in a big church with a modern trombone, it's very hard to be heard clearly because your sound is so resonant that it fills the entire space. With the sackbut, which is a bit less resonant — has less core and less projection — then you can actually be heard more clearly."
Brisson demonstrates at Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church in Montreal:
4. The sackbut's mouthpiece is significantly different from the trombone's
Compared to the modern trombone's mouthpiece, the sackbut's is, according to Brisson, "typically a flat rim with a hemispherical cup and with very sharp transitions from the rim to the cup and from the cup to the backbore, rather than being smooth and round.
"It's all at right angles and that changes the way the sound goes into the instrument. It makes it slightly more airy, but much more vocal and softer, but also much more susceptible to be changed with colour or articulation."
5. The sackbut and trombone's music is not interchangeable
"The [sackbut's] repertoire is strange because it's the repertoire that was written for trombone, but because the instrument changed in very specific ways since then, it's no longer really playable on modern trombone," explained Brisson. "So the only way we can we get to play this repertoire is by actually doing it on period instruments."
To illustrate, Brisson drew our attention to this chamber sonata by Dario Castello (1602-31) for violin, cornetto, sackbut and harpsichord.
"Of course, with modern trombone, it would be extremely hard to balance with the violin, and the cornetto has no modern equivalent. But with the sackbut, it works." Brisson says this music requires extremely fast notes and treats the cornettist and sackbut player as soloists on par with the violinist. "[That's] hard to to play on the modern trombone because you need to articulate everything much more and you don't have that flexibility."
6. The electronic sackbut has nothing to do with the actual sackbut
Finally, don't be fooled by the electronic sackbut synthesizer housed at Ottawa's Canada Science and Technology Museum. Designed in the late 1940s by Hugh Le Caine, this is in fact an electronic keyboard instrument that got its name from the "versatility in pitch and timbre" that its inventor believed it shared with the sackbut.